I have a lot of respect for Jeremy Seabrook, and I read his article on the Guardian’s Comment is Free site with a strong sense of agreement with his diagnosis about the impact of rampant consumption. There are some really important truths here that are apt to get forgotten in our commodified world, this in particular:
The greatest threat to global stability comes not from the poor but from the rich. This startling proposition runs directly into another received idea, which is that the risk of disorder is a result of excessive materialism. What we suffer from is not a surfeit of materialism, but a deficiency of it; for if we truly valued the material basis upon which all human systems depend, we would exhibit a far greater reverence for the physical world we inhabit. If materialism means respect for the elements that sustain life, then we are gravely wanting in it. What is sometimes referred to as “materialism” is actually something else: perhaps a distorted kind of mysticism which believes we can use up the earth and still avoid the consequences of our omnivorous appetites.
And, particularly importantly:
The first task in achieving a decent security for all people on earth is to affirm the distinction between human nature and the nature of capitalism.
The latter sentiment is about as fundamental and important a statement as one could find of what it needs to bring our society back to its senses.
Where I find it hard to agree with Seabrook is in the optimistic tone of some of his argument. He is of course absolutely right when he argues that consumerism is unsustainable; but I’m not sure that I can agree that some of the glamour of extreme wealth is wearing off, at least here in the Anglo-Saxon West.
In part, this is about addictions that are extremely difficult to break, and in whose maintenance a lot of very powerful people have a strong vested interest. It is going to be extraordinarily difficult to break out of the web of envy, conformity and greed that sustains this set of addictions. And the blame for the underlying dissatisfaction can always be laid off somewhere else, at migrants, for example, or simply at people who are different. Watch the nastiness in our society increase as, in the months ahead, Western capitalism hits one of the bumps in the road.
But, additionally, part of the point about glamorous consumption is that it provides a very good smokescreen behind which real wealth and power can hide – for every footballer or pop-singer in the public eye there are grey men in suits who manage the system in obscurity, who will use an unprecedented range of strategies to protect what they own.
What is the answer? Beyond a critical mass of individuals who will stand back and look critically at what is happening around them, and reject the sheer irrationality of it, it’s difficult to say. But that’s probably where it has got to start.